If you work for a department head in the Madison County government — and you get canned — then you can appeal the decision. But is that a good thing, or is it simply prolonging the inevitable at taxpayer expense?
The county personnel policy is a lengthy and nuanced document that opens up post-termination possibilities for some county employees. If you’re fired from certain rooms in the government complex, you can continue the fight well after you’re shown the door.
Notably, this right doesn’t extend to all county employees. There are, in fact, two playing fields — one for employees who work for department heads, one for workers under constitutionally elected officers.
Constitutionally elected officers, such as the sheriff, the probate judge, magistrate judge, the clerk of court or tax commissioner, have the right to terminate an employee without any “due process” procedures. Years back, when the county personnel policy was approved, commissioners pleaded with constitutionally elected officers to adopt their plan, which included appeal options for employees. But those elected officials understandably opted not to give up their authority on personnel matters.
So those under their authority can be dismissed “at will,” while everyone else has “due process” rights.
On one level, the county’s termination appeal process makes good sense. It is intended to provide some protection for employees who could face political fallout if they anger the wrong elected official. And the political protection argument is a valid one in Madison County, where the government complex has often been a hot spot for political intrigue.
But if you step back and take a broader view, you must concede that all work places have the potential for vendetta, for superiors acting unfairly toward subordinates. The government certainly has no license on power plays. That can happen anywhere.
And a court of law is the only recourse against such actions in most professions — and in most county governments. For instance, anyone working in this business knows there’s no “newspaper appeal board.” If you get a pink slip, the decision is the decision, unless you’re willing to challenge your boss in court.
But in Madison County, the appeal procedure plays out as a costly tuneup for the court fight. Under Madison County’s personnel policy, an employee who appeals his dismissal is entitled to a hearing before a personnel hearing officer (PHO), who must be a “member in good standing of the State of Georgia Bar Association and is appointed by the board of commissioners …”
Under the personnel policy, the PHO is given the ultimate power on appeals. Remember that he or she is also appointed by one of the interested parties — the BOC.
“In reviewing action taken by management, the PHO shall confirm or rescind the adverse action in question,” the policy states. “… The PHO’s decisions shall be the final decision of Madison County.”
So a lawyer in Athens or Elberton can ultimately serve as the voice of Madison County on its most heated personnel issues.
We have yet to see a BOC-appointed PHO reverse a personnel action taken by the county. Instead, the post-termination wars are fought more on procedural grounds, with the government trying to tip toe through the policy minefield of its own making.
Commissioners now want to defuse that minefield. It’s a reasonable step, but one that holds the potential for a blowup.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.